Twin Cities charter school boosts reading scores for English language learners

Arabic student
Seventh grader Ladan Hassan studies Arabic at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The 325 students at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy are bused to Inver Grove Heights from around the Twin Cities. But many of them first came from places much further away.

"We have students here from Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, of course, America," said principal Asad Zaman, a native of Bangladesh. "I think we have some from Morocco, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh."

Zaman, who helped start the school four years ago, said more than 80 percent of the school's students are English language learners. All of the school's teachers are trained to teach English as a second language, or ESL.

Principal Asad Zaman
Principal Asad Zaman points out last year's test scores, displayed outside the school office. TIZA had one of the highest reading scores in the state.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Most ESL happens in the classroom," said Zaman.

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He said Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or as it's known by its acronym, TIZA, also has two ESL labs for students who continue to struggle to learn English.

"Pull-out only happens in extreme or in cases where they need significant remedial attention," Zaman said.

The school's heavy emphasis on teaching English language learners to read paid off in last year's standardized test scores. Ninety-one percent of the school's students were proficient in reading, one of the highest scores in the state. That achievement is prominently displayed outside the school office.

But Zaman notes the school's math scores weren't quite as good. Fifty-seven percent of TIZA students were proficient in math, which is about equal to the state average.

"Because we focused on reading, and then this year we're having a focus on math," Zaman said.

He said the math test is challenging for English language learners.

First grader
Abdirahman Warsame and Sumaya Said Omar are in third grade at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"And our teachers feel that the students have a natural aptitude for math, but unfortunately, without English, they can't do anything, because the questions are in English."

The school's students speak more than 15 languages at home. This is one of the few schools in the state that teaches them Arabic. Zaman points out a 7th grade class, where students are studying Arabic words they might use at the post office, such as mail, stamp and envelope. The students wear the school's uniform, blue pants and white or blue shirts. All of the girls in the room wear Islamic head scarves, although the scarves aren't mandatory.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy is named for an explorer who led the Muslim conquest of Spain. And Zaman said the school respects the traditional values of the mostly-Muslim countries its students have come from. One of those values is respect for parents and teachers. Families who enroll their children in TIZA want the school to reinforce that value, according to Zaman.

"No pushing means no pushing."

"For example, one of the students, I think one month ago, got suspended from school because he called a teacher ugly," Zaman said. "Now in the grand scheme of things, one might argue this is not really a suspension offense. But from our perspective, this is a very big deal. You cannot disrespect a teacher."

Zaman said the school makes it clear to students that they must follow the rules, or they will be disciplined. That could be a phone call to the student's parents, or students may be sent to the "reflection room" in the school's library. As Zaman stopped by the reflection room, three boys were "reflecting" because they were pushing on the playground.

Kindergarten students study Arabic
Marwa Borghol teaches Arabic to kindergarden students at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"We keep a very tight leash on it," said Zaman. "Because if they start pushing, and we do nothing, then there is a fight, and no, we're not doing to do that. No pushing means no pushing."

TIZA has a waiting list of more than 1,000 students. Zaman believes that's because of the school's focus on both academics and discipline. He also thinks the school is a welcoming place where Muslim children won't be harassed for their religion.

"Here, the girls are not getting teased because of their head scarf," said Zaman. "The boys are not being called little terrorists."

As a public charter school, Tarek Ibn Zayad Academy doesn't teach religion. But it does provide a time and place for Muslim students to pray if they choose to, and that's important to many of the parents who send their children here. The Arabic instruction is also a priority for many families. The chairman of TIZA's board, Hesham Hussein, is originally from Egypt, and has two children enrolled in the school.

Arabic class
Farhan Hurre teaches Arabic to seventh graders.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"It's important for me for my own kids to be bilingual. I want them to be able to live in America and speak English without an accent," said Hussein. "But I also want them to also be able to speak Arabic without an accent."

Hussein said he helped found TIZA because he saw a need for a school designed for immigrant children. He said the first couple of years were a little rocky, but said the school is now achieving exactly what he and the other founders had hoped.